Lotus births are all about celebrating and honoring the placenta, which serves and grows alongside your baby from moment one, with the sole purpose of helping your baby grow during pregnancy. The placenta is amazing: It creates hormones to help support the pregnancy. It transports nutrients and oxygen from the woman to her fetus through the umbilical cord and removes waste. It transfers antibodies to the growing baby to improve their immunity after they are born. One placenta can support twins (but sometimes they each have their own).

Placentas only start to develop during pregnancy, and once the baby is born, the placenta is born soon after, hence why it's often called the 'after birth'. It has done its job, and we are entirely grateful.

In many Western medical settings, after the baby is born, the umbilical cord is clamped and then cut, the placenta is inspected (to make sure it is healthy and that it came out in one piece), and then it is thrown away or burned with medical waste.

Some women may decide not to have the umbilical cord cut at all, in a practice called lotus birth, which is designed to honor the life that the placenta provided for the baby.

What is a lotus birth?

In a lotus birth, also known as umbilical nonseverance, the umbilical cord is never clamped or cut and is instead allowed to detach from the baby naturally, a process that takes about three to 10 days. After the birth, the placenta is washed and left to air dry for a day.

After drying, some people apply salt and herbs to the placenta to keep it from spoiling. It is then wrapped in a cloth or a pillowcase and kept close by the baby. This can be done following a cesarean birth as well.

Parents often choose to have a lotus birth for cultural, spiritual or traditional reasons, many believing that placentas are sacred and should detach on their own, instead of physically removing them. The practice has gained popularity among those interested in birthing without medical intervention, as some believe the practice to be more gentle for the infant. 

The practice of a lotus birth is often attributed to Claire Lotus Day in 1974, who observed that anthropoid apes don’t separate their infants from the placenta after birth.

After cutting the cord, some cultures bury the severed placenta after birth. In New Zealand, Maori families often bury the placenta to help the child connect to their culture and land. In Cambodia, many believe that burying the placenta helps the child stay safe, as long as they are nearby. There are many cultures around the world that bury placentas for spiritual purposes, and many families in the United States have kept the tradition alive. Placentophagy, or saving and preparing the placenta for later consumption, is also experiencing a resurgence in the U.S.

Are there benefits to having a lotus birth?

While research abounds on the benefits of delaying cord clamping until after the umbilical cord has stopped pulsating (which can be a matter of seconds or minutes), no research has been performed on the benefits of a lotus birth—it's all anecdotal.

Benefits attributed to lotus birth include:

  • A more gentle transition for the infant
  • Increased blood and nutrition from the placenta
  • Reduced risk of injury to the belly button
  • Honoring the shared life between infant and placenta

"This practice specifically challenges the medical disposal discourse by not only configuring the placenta as having spiritual significance but also by constructing it as belonging to the baby, not the mother," writes researcher Emily Burns in a 2014 paper, who looked at placenta rituals among Australian women who birthed at home. "This imbues the baby and the placenta with an agency that is not considered in contemporary medical contexts, which see the placenta as birth by-product which, if belonging to anyone, belongs to the birthing woman."

On the benefits of delayed cord clamping for the infant, which is now standard practice, The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists states, “Delayed umbilical cord clamping is associated with significant neonatal benefits in preterm infants, including improved transitional circulation, better establishment of red blood cell volume, decreased need for blood transfusion, and lower incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis and intraventricular hemorrhage." They recommend the practice whenever possible for pre- and full-term babies.

What are the risks of a lotus birth?

Lotus births can be controversial—as some medical professionals and medical associations have outright advised against them. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states, "Umbilical nonseverance [lotus birth] has no clear benefit to date and can increase risk of neonatal sepsis attributable to the presence of necrotic umbilical/placental tissue." 

Because the placenta tissue dies after birth, there could be a risk of infection.

Dr. Patrick O'Brien, spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, says, “If left for a period of time after the birth, there is a risk of infection in the placenta which can consequently spread to the baby. The placenta is particularly prone to infection as it contains blood. Within a short time after birth, once the umbilical cord has stopped pulsating, the placenta has no circulation and is essentially dead tissue."

However, one small case study on six mothers in 2019 noted no infection after lotus birth, though more research is needed.

Dr. Rob Atlas, of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, told She Knows that he has “declined to allow moms in his care to have a lotus birth," believing there to be no medical benefit to the practice.

Dr. Joseph G. Ouzounian of USC Keck School of Medicine told CBSNews that he worries about blood from the placenta clotting and causing a thromboembolism.

The trouble is that there have been little to no studies done on the benefits and risks of lotus birth. So people on both sides of the discussion are using their best judgment, and not research, to make their decisions.

Ultimately the decision to have a lotus birth is very personal, and one that only you can make, with the guidance of your medical provider.

A version of this post originally appeared on Feb. 7, 2018. It has been updated.